As Television Changed -
By Warren Chaney, Ph.D.
During the mid-1960s I wrote,
produced and performed in a weekly one-hour television
broadcast series titled, MAGIC MANSION. It ran
for two seasons and was broadcast live from an AFRTS
network studio on Okinawa. What was remarkable is that
the series while barely two seasons long, produced over
a 100 episodes and led in television’s transition from
live broadcasts to the newly emerging advent of
There are times when one is young that history moves
through your life and you are unaware that it happened.
Such was the case in October of 2010 when I was sent an
article from The Television Journal (Television in
Transition), which discussed of all things, this
television sitcom from my past. I was surprised when the
journal article described the show as transitional and
transformative. If that was the case, it sure had me
MANSION was a weekly sitcom filmed for the then,
Armed Forces Radio Television Service better known as
the AFRTS Network. It has since changed its name to the
American Forces Radio Television Service. I suspect they
feel that moniker is the more politically correct.
broadcast title card used for the show’s opening
program’s broadcast title card used for the show’s
By any name, AFRTS was huge and covered many
continents. It broadcast wherever troops were stationed.
The giant network carried many of the U.S. stateside
commercial programs but also developed its own
programming. Broadcast journalists trained at military
posts were sent into the field to gather news and convey
it to the troops. One would think that being military
the news would be slanted. Perhaps it was, yet in my
years of observation I never saw a right or left
leaning. It was always professional and well
delivered, a model I have often felt today’s news
anchors could benefit from
Entertainment programming such as Command
Performance had brought Bing Crosby, Eddie
Cantor and Bob Hope to soldiers and their
families stationed at military outposts across the
world. True Boardman and Jerome Lawrence
created the armed forces 30-minute program, MAIL CALL
with equally famous celebrities and entertainers. In
1965, The Department of Defense had established a
broadcast training center at Fort Benjamin Harrison,
Indiana. It trained military broadcast students for
worldwide AFRTS assignments. During the same year, AFRTS
began broadcasts in South Vietnam as the AFVN or
American Forces Vietnam Network. Into this setting, my
humble efforts began not in Vietnam but on the tiny
island country of Okinawa.
Missing from AFRTS programming were shows for kids and
there were scores of children accompanying parents in
countless overseas assignments from Okinawa to Germany
and from Korea to Japan, France and Austria. To begin
with, I was a ventriloquist and magician. I began as a
child and worked my way through college, earning money
to pay my way. I found performing immensely more
profitable than pumping gas and cleaning windshields
(this was in the days when stations still did that).
Military pay was low, even if you were an officer so
whenever I could work a “gig”, I did so. Once – as a
lark, I entered the Army talent show…and won. Since I
was a 1st Lieutenant, I was selected to be a Company
Commander of an “All Army” talent show that toured many
of the world’s U.S. troop locations including Viet Nam,
Guam, Iwo Jima, Japan, Thailand and Okinawa. It was on
Okinawa that I was asked to develop a kid’s program for
a network broadcast. It was there that MAGIC MANSION
Clowns, a magician, assistants and two
Clowns, a magician, assistants and two dummies made up
MAGIC MANSION was a sitcom for children
although it quickly drew an adult and family audience.
Its setting was an old mansion – magical in nature –
which housed a magician, his assistants and a series of
ventriloquist figures. Accompanying them was a host of
odd characters ranging from a clown and genii to a
Frankenstein Monster and musical leprechaun. This was
just before two other sitcoms in the continental U.S. (The
Munsters and Addams Family) made their debut.
I was stationed overseas and unaware of their existence.
Years later when I learned of the shows I remember
thinking that it was apparently the time for a family of
magicians, creatures and critters. Back then most shows
opened with Title Cards. It was remarkable that the
cards used for all three shows were so similar.
Magic Mansion’s two clowns – just after a live broadcast
and set collapse
Mansion’s two clowns – just after a live broadcast and
Unlike the higher budget programming from commercial
networks, our broadcast budget was small by comparison.
We had only $25,000 per episode. As with the majority of
programs, MAGIC MANSION was broadcast in glorious
black and white. The big difference between this
production and the commercial ones was that this one was
live. Videotape was nonexistent for practical purposes.
On April 14, 1956, the first Quadruplex recording
machines were introduced by Ampex. There were no freeze
frames, no search features and the tapes required
playing on special hand-made videotape heads. The 1”
tape would not appear on the scene until 1976. Only the
CBS, NBC or ABC shows such as I Love Lucy or the
Danny Thomas Show were filmed in 16mm and edited
for rebroadcast much as one might do a movie. Our show
was in real time and with live broadcasts before a live
audience. With it came all of the heart pounding
excitement one would expect from on-air emergencies.
Once, an entire set collapsed on the show’s clowns. As I
recall the clowns had stolen into a witch’s lair and had
just uttered the lines, “Nothing to worry about here!”
The show aired every Saturday morning at 10 AM. I was
never been told that one only did 24 to 32 broadcasts a
year. I never new any better, so I wrote for 50 shows,
rehearsed for 50 and broadcast the same number. Only
later did I realize that we did more shows in two
seasons than regular productions did in five.
This skit was about
“Danny O’Kay’s” induction into the military. For a
change, I was not the magician but the induction
officer. My assistant, Harriett Zorich checks Danny’s
pulse and I suspect – gets it racing a bit.
As I was saying, unless you filmed in 16mm, most
shows were live. The first Quadruplex videotape machines
had been introduced by Ampex in 1956. It was better that
the earlier tape from Bing Crosby’s electronic division
but still, none too good. You could not freeze pictures
and there was no search feature. The tapes had to be
played on hand-made tape heads, which made it
inefficient and cost ineffective.
What AFRTS lacked in production dollars, it made up
for in locations and air transportation. Securing a 16mm
Army camera, we filmed footage in locations like
Thailand, the Philippines and even India. No sound of
course, but wonderful stuff, nonetheless. With Viet Nam
on going, Okinawa became a stop off for famous
personalities on their way to entertain the troops in
the war zones. Since our show was Armed Forces
sponsored, I could get celebrities like Bob Hope, Guy
Mitchell, and Patti Page on the air. Famous
ventriloquist Peter Rich, made a stop as did
world-renowned magician, Tony Slydini. John Wayne made
an appearance when he was scouting the Ryukyus and
Philippines looking for shooting locations for his Viet
Nam war pic, The Green Berets.
The stories for MAGIC MANSION centered around the
magician and one or more of his ventriloquist figures.
Taking a cue from classic radio’s Edgar Bergen and
Charlie McCarthy show, our “dummies” were treated as
real kids. Children watching new better of course, but
enjoyed the illusion nonetheless.
Some of the best woodworkers I ever saw were Okinawan
and we employed our share. Week after week, they turned
out wonderful magic and illusions for the show. I would
draw up the magic plans on a Sunday evening and or
production manager, Mr. Miyamoto Matsuyama had it
finished by show time (the paint drying as we
performed). Scheduling was tough since I had other
Army Captain military duties. Still – not knowing any
better we made it work. I would write the script for the
following week right after the Saturday broadcast and
get it to the cast by Tuesday. We would do a run through
on a Friday and show up early Saturday morning for a
dress rehearsal prior to broadcast. If I said everything
went smooth, that would be untrue. We had more than our
share of on-set disasters from props not working to
guests forgetting their lines. However, we
persevered…and everyone covered for each other.
PFC David Kerne was
the musical Leprechaun for the show and when Christmas
arrived, became Santa Claus to the delight of the kids
and our live family audience.
Looking back, I was blessed with a boatload of talent
for the show. Jerry Jacobson was our first clown and
without exception, the best I ever knew. We named him
Lounsberry and he was fantastic. He had been drafted
into the Army right out of the Barnum and Bailey
circus. Nothing could go wrong that he could not cover.
Another Army Captain, Earle Klay, worked the show with
me. He was a wonderfully brilliant man and every week he
would don laborious makeup to play a Frankenstein type
monster named Rathmore. Earle was a nice guy and
somewhat on the shy side. He did a terrific job but
having to be “out there” had to be hard on his
personality. An Army physician, Captain Vince Rizutto
joined the show and became our in-resident Genii and
about any other role, we could come up with.
One of our off-show
performances was set at a camp for children who were
Harriett Zorich was the magician’s in resident
assistant and much better organized than the rest of us.
She was delightful to work with, the kids loved her and
it did not hurt that she was easy on the eyes. She had
been classically trained on the piano, had been a
concert performer and was classy. Somehow, I felt that
deep down she always wondered what she was dong – doing
these shows. She was an Army nurse and frequently
became the set’s first aid personnel.
Private David Kerne has played our Leprechaun with the
invisible band and at Christmas time, moonlighted as our
The show caught on almost at once and suddenly we had
additional demand placed on our time. Personal
appearances were desired and being the Army, required.
Since I was the MAGIC MANSION magician and
ventriloquist, performing was in. Not that this was bad
since I could “moonlight” at the Officer and NCO clubs.
Soon, I discovered I was doing much better financially
that from my military pay. The downside was that I could
not go anywhere the shows were playing and go
unrecognized. I was not used to that and found it
unsettling. I am sure that it influenced my decision to
enter the film industry and a writer/director later on.
The live weekly broadcasts before a live studio
audience led to traveling live performances for
publicity and audience goodwill purposes. There were no
Neilson or Hooper ratings for AFRTS productions so we
never knew our viewing audience size.
However, the day it hit me that we might have
something was in December of 1966. We were asked to
produce a Magic Mansion Christmas show at a large
military base field house. Expecting about 500 children,
we were stunned to have over 4,000.
We figured the show
was doing well when an expected live audience of 500
grew to over 4,000.
What I never realized at the time was that MAGIC
MANSION had become a transitional television show.
It was in with the last of the hot light, live audience
and live performance television shows. Videotape was on
the way. In 1969, Sony introduced a prototype for the
first widespread videocassette, the 3/4" (1.905 cm)
composite U-matic system. Few shows used it commercial
or otherwise but we were selected – and use it we did.
It did not have the editing capability that later came
with videotape but it did remove the pressure of
performing a live broadcast. Even better, it permitted a
show to record its productions for rebroadcast and
performance purposes. Of the 120 some odd shows that
MAGIC MANSION did, only a few survived. At the end
of ’69, I received orders transferring me to another
assignment in the states. So, in late October of that
year, the lights went off and MAGIC MANSION shut
I have no
recollection of ever being this young!
Everything changed after that. Laugh tracks would
replace studio audiences and the seasonal broadcasts
would eventually drop to a fraction of what had been
expected of us. Afterwards, the broadcasts were cleverly
edited into flawless performances and AFRTS changed its
name. The mammoth network transformed from the Armed
Forces Radio and Television Service into the American
Forces Radio and Television Service. It was more
politically correct I suspect. Then – in September of
1971, after working out all of the industry standards
with other manufacturers, Sony refined its early
videotape into its Broadcast Video U-matic or BVU.
Television would never be the same – ever again.
MAGIC MANSION was quite a ride and one that
would – two decades later – lead me into a 25—year
career in motion picture and television work…but never
again as a performer!